Writing Humor in Science Fiction and Fantasy

I enjoy writing humor when I get the chance, as I think it can add another layer to the story.

I don’t mean the story has to be a laff-riot, gag-a-minute, yuckfest.  Well, that couldn’t hurt.  But, you can work humor in here and there to make things interesting.  Stories need ups and downs, build up and release. Humor can help.

How do you write humor?  Beats me.  I’m naturally a smart-aleck, so I’m experienced with making jokes and quips or pouring on the sarcasm.  I just go with my gut feeling.  The trick with humor is that you can’t try too hard.  When you try too hard, it is obvious to your audience.

Like in horror films, the “less is more” approach is best.

Think of that relative of yours.  You know the one.  Every time he tries to tell a joke, he over explains it and ruins the punch line, or he keeps adding to the joke. Knowing when enough is enough is key.  I was in an improv comedy group in college, and one of our rules was “a skit can never be too short.”  If we hit a high note twenty seconds into the skit, we stopped and went on to something else.

To contrast, think of a late night comedy skit that keeps going on and on.  You know the show I’m talking about.  It airs on the day between Friday and Sunday.  You find yourself thinking, “This skit could have ended five minutes ago.” And it should have.

The realms of science fiction and fantasy are an easy target when it comes to humor.  Fantasy humor tends to be, in my experience, a bit easier to write–you don’t have all that science and math to worry about.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t love science fiction fantasy.  FUTURAMA and RED DWARF are two of my favorite TV shows, and HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY is one of my all time favorite novels. It also doesn’t mean I wouldn’t take a stab at writing a science fiction humor piece of my own.

I was on a panel about humor in science fiction and fantasy at Penguicon in May. Joining me on the panel were Jim C. Hines and Brian Briggs (listen to the panel here).  One of the points we stressed was that it wasn’t the story being science fiction or fantasy that made it funny, but it was the characters and how they interacted with each other.

Check out John Scalzi’s OLD MAN’S WAR–it is a pretty serious action/adventure science fiction tale, but it has a bunch of humor that comes from how the characters talk to each other.

Character interaction is a big part of comedy.  FUTURAMA isn’t funny because it takes place in the year 3000.  It is funny because Fry is a moronic delivery boy, Bender is a conniving, drinking robot and Dr. Zoidberg is an incompetent physician.

The humor comes from how these character interact.  The same goes for RED DWARF.  Lister is a slob.  Rimmer is the total opposite. There’s your conflict. The “odd couple” scenario is a tried and true humor tool. There’s nothing funny about two guys–one of which is a living hologram–on a mining ship lost in deep space.  But when one is a horrible slob and the other is a by-the-book jerk, then you have a plan for funny.

Character flaws are another great source for humor.

Look at Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series and the character Rincewind.  He’s a wizard, and wizards aren’t all that funny…well, except for those pointy hats.  But, make him a terrible wizard (he only knows one spell), who is a coward and now you’ve got something.  If you have certain rules for your character, then you know how they’ll act in different situations.  Because Rincewind is a coward, he will always try to run away from trouble. But what happens when he can’t simply run away? Hilarity ensues.

The next time you are working on a story, even if it is horror or dark fiction, consider throwing in a few quirky characters and jokes.  It certainly couldn’t make your story any less funny.

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